WASHINGTON — After much media attention and protests from students, advisers and free speech advocates, the Seattle Public School District hasdecided to withdraw the freedom of expression proposal introduced at lastweek’s school board meeting.
The district announced Monday afternoon that the policywould be removed from upcoming agendas so administrators can “ensure that itbetter reflects the community’s values,” according to a press release.
“As a former journalism teacher, it is important for me — asI know it is for our Board — that we uphold our practice of trusting ourteachers to educate our students on the rights and responsibilities that comewith freedom of expression and free press,” Interim Superintendent SusanEnfield said in the release.
The school board will revisit the proposal in 2012, Enfieldsaid.
Kathy Schrier, executive director of the WashingtonJournalism Education Association, said administrators had woken a “sleepinggiant” in the form of the scholastic journalism community.
“We headed this one off at the pass,” Schrier said. “But I’mfeeling like it’s still going to be revisited in 2012, and we’ve got thismomentum going.”
Many students and advisers were unaware of what the currentpolicy was, she said, and now they realize they cannot take it for granted.
“Finally, something good happens,” Schrier said. “We justget so trampled sometimes by one bad decision after another happening. Whensomething finally works, it’s like, ‘My God, what a relief.’”
Months after winning a libel lawsuit based on its hands-offtreatment of student journalism, the Seattle Public School District seemspoised to clamp down on its freedom of expression policy as part of a majorschool code overhaul.
Amid a flurry of updates to policies and proceduresintroduced at last week’s school board meeting, school principals would begranted prior review authority, and publications could be barred from runninganything “disruptive” or “inappropriate.”
The new language is a reversal of the district’s long-heldstance, which helped it defeat defamation claims lobbed by two Seattlelandlords in response to a 2009 Roosevelt High School newspaper story.
Mike Hiestand, consulting attorney for the Student Press LawCenter, called the move “nonsensical.”
“We dodge this rare bullet that comes our way because we dothings a certain way, so let’s change that way,” Hiestand said. “Let’s do things completely differently somaybe we can encourage more lawyers to file lawsuits.”
The story in TheRoosevelt News reported that brothers Hugh and Drake Sisley had beenaccused of “racist renting practices” at properties they own near the highschool, which the article referred to as the “Sisley slums.”
The Sisleys filed separate lawsuits against the district.
A Washington state court judge dismissed Hugh Sisley’s claimin a July 22 judgment that found the district was not liable for allegedlydefamatory remarks made by student media because of its freedom of the presspolicy.
The judge also ruled that the story was not defamatorybecause the Sisleys were unable to prove it false.
Sisley’s attorney is appealing to the Washington Court ofAppeals.
Under the new rules, principals would be allowed to haltpublication if they deem material to be potentially libelous or “not in keepingwith the school’s instructional mission and values.”
The language in the policy draft is lifted from suggestedwording by the Washington State School Director’s Association, which works withthe state’s school boards, the SeattleTimes reported.
The association allows school boards to purchase samplepolicy drafts and updates via an annual subscription fee, according to itswebsite.
Kathy Schrier, executive director of the Washington JournalismEducation Association, said she was stunned that the district would evenconsider such a restrictive policy, calling it “the policy language that justwon’t die.”
“It’s just bad, bad policy that got in the pipeline andwon’t go away,” Schrier said. “And it keeps being recommended by stateassociations and school districts just buy it hook, line and sinker. It’s likea really bad virus, and once it takes root, it just devastates the scholasticpress.”
District spokeswoman Teresa Wippel said the public does have a month to comment and let their voices be heard before the board votes.
She referred additional questions to school board member Harium Martin-Morris, who did not immediately return a message seeking comment. However, Martin-Morris told the Times, “It’s to make sure we don’t dothings that are libelous or inflammatory or any of those things.”
Similar prior review measures in the Puyallup SchoolDistrict, resulting from a 2008 lawsuit, have stifled student voices, Schrier said.Several students sued that district for invasion of privacy after the EmeraldRidge High School newspaper quoted them by name in a story about oral sex. Thedistrict won the case in 2010, but the prior review remains.
“The kids are self-censoring like crazy,” Schrier said.“They don’t even try important stories anymore. They know that they do all thework, and it’s just going to get crushed.”
Seattle students have wasted little time in letting theirfeelings about the proposed changes be known.
Two editors at Ballard High School’s The Talisman used the weekend to post signs around the schoolproclaiming “Student 1st Amendment Rights at Risk,” the Seattle Times reported.
Despite the Roosevelt ruling, district officials told the Times they were wary that another judgecould find the district liable because student newspapers use school resourcesand property.
District attorneys are arguing now the lower court rulingwas a “fluke,” Schrier said.
Schrier said the WJEA is interested to see what interimsuperintendent Susan Enfield, a former journalism adviser who has not yetcommented on the situation, has to say at the next school board meeting Nov.16.
The board will also be taking public comments on theproposal at that meeting, and Schrier said she wants to make sure all studentsand advocates follow proper protocol.
“What can happen if you’re raucous about stuff, there’s apushback,” she said. “[It’s] the ‘We can’t let the inmates run the asylum’thing.”
The school board is scheduled to vote Dec. 7 on theproposal.
Now that it has raised eyebrows, Hiestand said he’s hopefulthe issue will be addressed.
“There’s really no reason to change things. One, you’ve gotthe Roosevelt ruling, and, two, you’ve actually got a policy that’s workedreally well for Seattle schools,” Hiestand said. “For this to happen here at thistime, it’s kind of bizarre.”